Saint Conan’s Kirk – Loch Awe


Although St. Conan’s Kirk has already acquired a certain air of antiquity and a considerable reputation as one of the “show places” of Argyll, it is in fact quite modern, so modern that in its present form it was dedicated for worship as recently as 1930.

I spotted this church or kirk as we say in Scotland as I was coming down the road from Oban to Glasgow, which goes along the side of Loch Awe and Loch Lomond. Luckily there are a few parking places right outside the kirk on the main road so I was able to stop. Not easy if you are driving a large Motor Caravan.

From the outside St. Conan’s looks quite impressive and the inside is no different. I could have spent all day here but time was limited and very annoyingly in the hour that I spent two women continuously sung this soulless dirge. By the end it was really getting to me, especially, as they continuously walked across every bracket set I was trying to take despite the fact that I asked them to have some consideration for others.

Anyway from the layout of the kirk you can see that there is plenty of areas to photograph and I soon lost no time in getting on with it.

However before I show you some of the images I took here a short history lesson. Until about the 1870’s although the road from Stirling to Oban passed along the north shores of Loch Awe, there were practically no human habitations between Dalmally and Taynuilt. Then came the arrival of the railway made the loch less far more accessible. A Hotel was built, and a certain Walter Douglas Campbell, younger brother of the First Lord Blythswood, bought from the Marquis of Breadalbane the Island of Innischonam, on which he built for himself a stately mansion-house. Here he settled with his sister Helen and his mother. Local tradition has it that the elder Mrs Campbell found the long drive to the parish church in Dalmally too much for her, and that her son accordingly decided to build her a church nearby. The original church, which was begun in 1881 and finished about 1886, was a comparatively small and simple building, although adequate to the needs of the small congregation. It occupied what is now the nave, and a part of the choir of the present kirk. But Walter Campbell was not satisfied with this. He began to dream of a far nobler building. So here are some images of that much nobler building starting with the Chancel.

Now it’s at this point I realise I have left my camera set on spot metering for the whole set of images I have taken at St Conan’s…not a good start. However, to continue. The semi circular apse and ambulatory with their solid pillars, narrow arches and clear-glass windows are perhaps the most distinctive features of St. Conan’s. It seems probable that the shape was inspired by those of St. John’s Chapel in the Tower of London, but whereas that chapel is dark, this receives the full blaze of daylight and has as its background the mountains of Glenorchy and Glenstrae.

Immediately behind me is the Nave, regularly used for public worship every Sunday. In winter the local congregation is a small one, but in summer, when there are many visitors in the neighbourhood, it is usually well filled. Its most interesting feature is the large organ screen.

From the Nave if I turn to my left I can see a beautiful stained glass window with a rather old chair right in front of it

Passing this chair and turning to the left takes me past another stained glass window, which again is quite detailed

We are now in St. Fillan‘s Aisle. St. Fillan has a dual claim to be represented here, for he was the patron saint not only of Killallan near Inchinnan but also of Strathfillan, the parish which lies behind Ben Lui to the north of Glenorchy. This aisle is chiefly remarkable for the McCorquodale window, erected in memory of another old friend of the Blythswood family. Unlike any of the other stained-glass windows, this was included in the other and smaller building. It was originally installed on the opposite side of the church, but the background of hillside and trees did not do full justice to the stained glass, and so, when the larger scheme was put in hand, the opportunity was taken to move it so that it should overlook the loch. The window consists of three lights. The first shows the Warrior, who has put on the whole Armour of God and bears the Shield of Faith. His faith is so strong that he does not even look at the fiery darts coming up through brambles and smoke. The opposite light shows the Sword of the Spirit piercing evil creatures; while the centre light, “I have finished my course,” depicts angels taking from the Warrior’s head the Helmet of Salvation and showing the weeds and smoke at his feet turning to roses.

Continue past this window and you will see on your right the Bruce Chapel, which owes its origin to the fact that it was on the hillside above the kirk that the King despatched his famous outflanking column under the Earl of Douglas. This led to such a decisive defeat upon John of Lorne and his clansmen in the Pass of Brander.

The effigy, which is more than life-size, is of wood, the face and hands being of alabaster. It is the work of the well-known Edinburgh sculptor, Mr Carrick, who was responsible for the figure of St. Conan outside the church and for the War Memorial at the entrance gate. Beneath the figure, let into the base, is a small ossuary which contains a bone of the King himself, taken from Dunfermline Abbey. If that’s the case, why on earth did they leave that step-ladder there, surely it could have been stored elsewhere? It just looks so out of place and untidy.

Carrying on past the chapel steps lead down to the crypt (locked when I was there) or you can walk behind the chancel.

Turning back on yourself at this point and heading on past that old chair will take you to the South Aisle and two other small chapels The first is St. Conval’s Chapel. The name is another link with Inchinnan, for St. Conval, known as the “Confessor,” was born in Ireland and made his first landing in Scotland at there. The other chapel, known as St. Bride’s, contains the tomb of the Fourth Lord Blythswood.

At the bottom right of the South Aisle is an exit to the the Cloister Garth. The kirk is best entered by the door near the Northwest corner which leads to the Cloister Garth. These cloisters have no real function but are another example of Walter Campbell’s love of copying beautiful things for their own sake, and such garths were an invariable feature in all the old abbeys of Scotland. It is a tranquil and peaceful spot, except when you have got two aging hippy women singing that damned awful soulful dirge.

For some reason they seemed to be concentrating on that plinth in the centre of the cloisters. The very heavy oak beams seen here were taken from two famous old battleships, the Caledonia and the Duke of Wellington. Wood from these battleships was also used for the doors and some of the roofwork of the main building. The curious octagonal tower was the bellows-room of the old pipe organ, now unfortunately only a memory.

It is easy to criticise St. Conan’s. It is neither ancient nor historical. It is neither conventional nor slavishly representative of any particular type of architecture. It is larger than the actual needs of the congregation would dictate, and it is in parts elaborate. Nevertheless, no one who has visited it can deny that the founder’s vision of building “To the Glory of God, a House Beautiful” has indeed been realised.

For further information please have a look at this detailed history and description of St. Conan’s Kirk written by J.C. MARTIN in 1954.

Thinking of paying a visit yourself. Maybe this map will help you…

Map picture

One thing I forgot to mention and it was very remiss of me. The texture used
in the image of the Kirk is from an excellent digital artist called Jerry Jones
or Skeletalmess on Flickr. He makes all of his textures and brushes available
for free. Check him out….Shadowhouse Creations or Skeletalmess

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6 comments

  1. What an absolutely beautiful church and your photographs Mike, have brought the best out in it. Stunning to look at (large). Brilliant. Cheers.

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  2. I only wish I had more time here. We were on our way from Oban, down the side of Loch Lomond (very narrow and twisty, turny in parts) heading for Balloch and a new camp-site. Of course we had to be in Balloch by a certain time and that meant I couldn’t stay too long. Conscious of that I rushed everything, snapped off loads of brackets, with I suppose not a lot of thought about composition etc and in consequence failed to spot my camera was on all the wrong settings for HDR work. Fortunately I managed to salvage some of what I had taken in the space of about 40 minutes. Moral of the story, don’t rush it. If you have limited time, concentrate on getting the one good shot, rather than a load that are barely usable. Here endeth the lesson…..

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  3. Lovely images, make me want to visit when I’m next about Loch Awe. Thank you for the pingback too!

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  4. I love the pictures you took at St Conan’s Kirk, thas is one of my favourite places in Scoltand! If you want fo visit my blog, you will find some of my pictures, taken in the same place and around Scotland!
    I will follow you with pleasure because I LOVE your photographic style!

    Beatrice

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